Author Archives: Bill Meehan
A brilliant electrical engineer approached me with a request. He asked if we could model a complex control system in electric substations with GIS. To better understand what he wanted to do, I asked what problem he was trying to solve. He described several. First, the control system took incorrect action when faced with a failure in the power system. What happened was the control system tripped out a larger section of the grid than was necessary. The engineer thought that modeling the control system in GIS could help diagnose and ultimately correct this problem. I told him this was possible, but it would be complicated.
He was overlooking major, obvious problems that carried big impact.
I tried to change the subject. I asked the engineer what was the biggest problem facing his company. He asked what I meant. What was the biggest problem from an engineering perspective? From another? I clarified. I meant, generally, what was his company’s biggest problem? He said bad data, poor engineering standards, budget cuts, inconsistent operating practices, and more. I pressed further. Finally, he said, “Well, 60 percent of our customers don’t pay their electric bills. Is that what you mean?” Continue reading
“The report of my death was highly exaggerated.”
It turns out Mark Twain never really said the quote like this. But that doesn’t really matter. The quote retains its meaning. For a utility professional like myself, Twain’s insight reminds me that though many are speculating on the impending demise of the electric utility, that death is highly exaggerated.
The Electric Utility Death Spiral Goes Like This
In the United States, we have a new trend. Customers are installing solar panels to beat the band. In most places, customers can sell excess electricity these panels generate to utilities—at the same price they buy electricity from these utilities. The controversial practice is called “net metering.” The question people are asking is, “Is this fair?”
Pop quiz! What’s the difference between a paper GIS and a digital GIS display?
“You can fold the paper plot, but you can’t fold the display.” That’s the most common answer. That’s also the problem.
Many people still view GIS displays as less convenient ways to see GIS plots. When I worked for a power company, we built special cabinets in the dispatch center just to hold our medium-voltage operating map sheets. That’s because we’d plotted our sheets on nonstandard sizes, so the standard file cabinets didn’t work. When we converted from our old, hand-drawn operating maps to GIS maps, we just plotted the new map sheets to look exactly like the old ones. And we plotted them on the same size paper as the old paper maps. Why? So they could fit in our custom file cabinets. If we could have recreated coffee stains on the GIS plots, we would have. Everything—the symbols, annotation, line weights, and of course plot sizes—were the same on the new as on the old map sheets.
Our underlying basemap grid was also a throwback to some arbitrary system from early in the previous century. Change it? Get out of town! Continue reading
Today, ArcGIS is more than a software product. It is a platform that takes advantage of organizations’ huge information inventories.
Platforms have changed the way society shares information, communicates, and collaborates. From Amazon to Apple, a variety of platforms on our devices remember who we are and call up the information we need to get the most out of our time. We move seamlessly from desktops, web browsers, tablets, and smartphones. Wouldn’t it be great if our professional platforms worked so smoothly?
The ArcGIS platform has three parts: Continue reading
Enhancing internal and external collaboration with the ArcGIS platform.
In the novel You Can’t Go Home Again, mid-20th-century American author Thomas Wolfe fictionalizes his hometown. Wolfe’s main character gets into trouble, angering the townsfolk of his hometown. I can relate.
I grew up in a blue-collar city, where the main claim to fame was that at one time it was the most densely populated city in the United States. That meant packed houses and city streets. You could say that I grew up on the streets of this very crowed city. Shortly after marrying and having a child, my wife and I moved to the suburbs. Later, my career became running electric operations for the power company that covered my old home town.
About 15 years ago, my hometown City Council invited me as a special guest at the chamber. Residents packed the public session; I felt certain at least a few might have gone to high school with me.
The residents weren’t happy. I felt like Wolfe’s character. Continue reading
To stay profitable and transform business, utilities must break with old habits.
There’s a well-known saying that goes, “Old habits die hard.” All my life, I’ve struggled to manage my weight. I’ve probably lost 1,000 pounds in my life, but the problem is I’ve gained 1,050 pounds. If I really wanted to lose weight permanently, I would kill off my old bad habits for good, not just suspend them for a while during the diet and then bring them back again as soon as I lose enough weight. To really transform yourself, old, negative habits must die.
Electric companies are going through huge change. Regulators insist on unbundling utility components: generation, transmission, distribution, and retail services. In the old days of vertical integration, electric companies could make money on the strength of their business diversity. Today that’s less so. And to make matters worse, energy delivery, transmission and distribution (T&D), faces lots of unknowns, including weather, theft, vandalism, terrorism, and public scrutiny.
GIS gives utilities a repeatable means of mitigating risk and minimizing surprises.
The probability that something bad will happen makes us think of our protectors: insurance companies. Insurance companies accumulate the combined risk of policyholders. Insurers lose money if bad things happen. They make money if bad things don’t happen.
Some say utilities are risk averse. It’s true that utilities historically are conservative. They avoid taking actions that could trigger unwanted consequences. The problem is, the cost of remaining conservative rises constantly. Given recent economic troubles, utilities must learn to avoid negative consequences while also avoiding overspending to do so. The situation gets worse when you consider utility infrastructure ages faster than many utilities can afford to replace. So as facilities enter disrepair, hazards abound. Reliability suffers.
What happens? Continue reading
Take a hard look at your GIS. It’s probably time to modernize.
I hate the word “selfie.” But this new concept is everywhere. Over the past year or so, everyone seems to taking pictures of themselves and tweeting them. This seems awfully self-indulgent. Yet, maybe it’s a good thing to take a hard look at yourself once in a while. Maybe taking a selfie gives you a chance to re-invent yourself.
Utilities need to reassess their practices, too, particularly in this age of rapid change touching everything from climate and renewable resources to technology. One technology utilities might want to take a hard look at is their GIS. After all, utilities have been using GIS for ages. So it’s probably time to modernize. Here are my seven ways utilities can modernize their GIS.
Knowledge is power. Does your utility have enough of the right spatial intelligence?
“More information is always better than less.” — Simon Sinek, Author
Sinek would never agree that “less is more.” The author went on to describe the value of more information: “When people know the reason things are happening, even if it’s bad news, they can adjust their expectations and react accordingly,” Sinek stated. “Keeping people in the dark only serves to stir negative emotions.”
When I worked for a power company, it was my job to make sure people were not in the dark—literally. When people were out of power, we figured out why: A snow storm had drizzled ice on the power lines. Or some drunk had crashed into a utility pole. Or else some stupid (now dead) squirrel had climbed onto the lines and forgotten that his tail was a very nice conductor. Continue reading
Location analytics lets you visualize your key performance indicator data on maps.
Russ was one of my favorite bosses. He was the president of the utility I worked at. I ran electric operations. Russ was an accountant, a bean counter by training. I was (and am) an electrical engineer. Yet we agreed on almost everything about running a gas and electric utility.
Russ once told me that there are only four things you have to do to be successful at running a utility. Only four? Yes. Make money, keep customers happy, keep employees happy and safe, and stay out of trouble. Continue reading